Debriefing #33: Legends of the Dark Knight: Shaman

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Legends of the Dark Knight: Shaman

Writer: Dennis O’Neil

Pencils: Ed Hannigan

Ink: John Beatty and Dick Giordano

This discussion concerns Legends of the Dark Knight (published November 1989) issues 1-5

Edgar: The origin of Batman, a story any fan of the Caped Crusader can recite by heart without any fact checking whatsoever by now. What made Bruce Wayne don the cape and cowl is the stuff of comic book and graphic novel legend. Despite everyone’s familiarity with the material, it always seems as though new writers come along with ideas about how to add more layers, depth, and twists to what Bruce Wayne went through after that fateful night in Crime Alley. Here we are with Legends of the Dark Knight: Shaman, a curious tale about, what else, how Wayne started his career as a masked vigilante. Of course, there is a twist, what with Native American folklore thrown into the mix this time around. James, what were your initial thoughts when turning the early pages of this book and discovered we’d be getting yet another variation of the birth of Batman and did it satisfy?

James: My initial reaction was one of hesitation. There are so many origins out there that I was worried that this one would be a simple rehash. However, this interpretation does a couple of new things while also fitting into previous origin stories. It should be noted that the book gives a very brief highlight of a lot of moments from Year One, which came out just a couple of years prior. However, what I think Shaman adds is a nice folklore element. We open with Bruce Wayne ending up in a Native American tribe up in Alaska where he is told a story as part of a healing ritual that eventually inspires, in part, the character of Batman. I know we’ve talked about the various interpretations of Batman, what did you think of those folklore elements in this origin story?

E: To be perfectly honest, they made the book more than just tolerable. They made it really quite good. I have to say I had a pretty darn good time reading Shaman and, yes, a lot of that has to do with what Dennis O’Neil, one of the great Batman comic writers, adds to the mythology. We’ve seen movies and read books about why Bruce adopts the shape of a bat and they made sense in a way (the idea of conveying fear) but this story puts a different spin on the matter with the myth about the Bat earning its wings through a healing process for its friend the raven. On top of that, we get a story in which Native American masks prove a critical object but also plays a part in defining the psychology of Bruce Wayne as he becomes Batman, just as Batman retains elements of Bruce Wayne. What is the mask? What does it represent? How important is what lies behind said mask. Seriously, I dug this book a lot. One of the elements I’d like to discuss is the fact that this is an early Batman story. Bruce is, say, a bit more green as a crime fighter. He’s, maybe not impulsive, but he gives into certain emotions that the Batman we know won’t anymore some time down the road. A bit of immature maybe. What are your thoughts on this younger Bruce Wayne and younger Batman.

J: I loved that O’Neil took that route. We see a scuffle Bruce Wayne had in Year One in the early days of crime-fighting and instead of highlighting that initial exhilaration like Miller does, O’Neal shows that Bruce is really rough around the edges, super sloppy and ends up causing a lot of collateral damage. O’Neil shows that this crusade begins with a rough learning phase. We get that from the beginning when Bruce is fighting the guy on the mountain and he gets in a fight and ends up accidentally having his target fall to his death. He’s bugged by the fact he wasn’t able to save him. We also get even more of that when Bruce goes back to the tribe where it all began and finds out that his attempt to help the tribe through Wayne Enterprises has actually crippled their culture and lost what made their culture fascinating and inspirational to him in the first place. Were you similarly fascinated by those elements?

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E: I was, actually. That was but one of the aspects to the plot and the story that made the experience all the more layered, all the more engaging as a reader. It kept Bruce Wayne’s incredible power as a wealthy philanthropist as well as Batman’s efficiency as a crime fighter in check, not so much that the book was taking shots at the character just for the sake of keeping things fresh, but because that’s what a ‘realistic’, let’s say,  interpretation of the troubles a younger Bruce Wayne would encounter as he embarks on this insane crusade of his. We really get to witness how frustrated and emotional Bruce can be when he doesn’t hold back and that was also a really interesting touch. It made him human and believable. A topic we’ve discussed a fair bit in recent weeks upon dissecting the New 52 Detective Comics is Batman’s violent edge. There were moments in those volumes when it felt a little too much. O’Neil strongly hints at a violent side to the character here. Were you turned off in the same way or was it handled better here?

J: I think it works a lot better here. One reason we just discussed, which is that Batman seems to have to feel the weight of his actions more in this book. He certainly does his fair share of brutalizing, but it seems to get to him, especially in those early issues. It doesn’t have that touch of sadism that bugged me in the New 52 Detective Comics arc. It’s a means to an end here. Maybe the means aren’t always the right ones, but this Batman feels like he at least struggles with that tension instead of simply revelling in some of those violent acts. Speaking of violence, that gets into one of the other elements of this book: the cult that Batman hunts for most of the book. What did you think of that plot thread?

E: Hmm, that’s a really interesting plot point. I don’t know if I outright love it but I think it serves its purpose. Let’s be honest, it isn’t as if Batman hasn’t come across dangerous cultish organizations before, so to claim that this was a tremendously fresh take on a villain wouldn’t be accurate. Even so, there was something about it that I thought was pretty neat. I think it had to do with two things. The first, there was decent balance between how much the book showed us of what they do until the climax when Batman finally smashes them, versus his investigation to eventually find them. Second, I like how it tied back to not only the backstory in Alaska we get in the first issue but also something Bruce does to finance an expedition to Alaska after his return to Gotham. So, we get enough to tease and it all fits in nicely with the plot like a jigsaw puzzle, if you will. James?

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J: I agree that I liked how it all came together. It gives us a good balance of intrigue, action and detective work. The actual cult and their ajenda does feel like the weakest part of the book. It’s not as compelling an antagonist for Batman as it could have been, but I like how it brings all the pieces together. I think if there had been a more compelling motivation at work or a more interesting cult leader that thread would have worked better for me, but it still ended up making the book come together as a whole. An aspect of the book we haven’t addressed is the art. What did you think of this visual interpretation?

E: I’m under the impression that we’ve addressed the general style of late 1980s, early 1990s mainstream comic book artwork before during to some of our previous Debriefings with Batman books. There are the usual mild annoyances, like the colour blue in people’s hair to delineate strands, or that weird effect when a character is awash in light or shadow, so the artists draws the entire body just yellow or just blue and stuff like that. I’ve never been a fan of that sort of artistry and it’s extremely present in all sorts of books this era, not just Batman. Having said that, there is something nice to go back and look at images in which simplicity conveys the story, the emotions and other such details. Heh, it was a simpler time, so to speak. I can’t say I’m a huge fan of some the shading style I just mentioned, but I do like that the artists don’t go crazy with the details. The colours do the storytelling more so than all the cracks and scratches on a characters face. Where do you fall on the matter?

J: I get those complaints, I do have issues with some of the colors, but I did like some of the visuals we get in certain sections. The rendering of the central healing legend that sparks the entire story is beautifully done in the Native American art style. I also liked seeing little bizarre dream-like touches such as when a snowman ends up being the killer of Bruce’s parents in his fevered dreaming (A pun on Joe Chill perhaps). Little bits like that made up for some of the bizarre color uses, but I’ll agree that this style can certainly be off-putting at times.

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E: Oh, snap! A pun on Joe Chill. Dude, you’re smart reader! I didn’t even think of that but it seems so obvious now. I have to agree with you on the artistry that went into the telling of the healing legend. I didn’t see that coming and, compared to a lot of the other images we get in the book, is pretty sophisticated. That was a pretty great touch indeed. Switching topics, I’m getting the feeling that the New 52 Detective Comics is going to be something of a punching bag for weeks to come with us. We frowned upon the lack of detecting the Caped Crusader did in those stories. Once again, we have a non Detective Comics storyline where our hero does a ton of detecting! I have to say, Shaman handles the investigation rather well. It feels as though there is a mystery, the reader is discovering things along with Batman. First, what did you think of the investigation and, second, what did you make of the identities of the culprits and how Batman deduces it all?

J: The detective work did one of my favorite things that I wished more Batman stories would do: they made him take on other disguises. He passes as a shoe-shiner to get close to Gordon in one scene (and then is cheeky enough to remind him to pay for the shoeshine) and in another scene he pretends to work for a security system company. Seeing Batman do detective groundwork in other costumes is always fun and shows that it’s not always about donning the cape and cowl. As for the identities, I thought the book got a bit too complicated for a bit, almost over-thinking the case in terms of who was behind the cults, but the actual identity of the shaman made perfect sense and brought everything full circle. It was a satisfying detective mystery with maybe just a tad too much crammed in those final two issues.

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E: Ah, yes, the costumes! I loved that touch. A bloody shoeshiner! A SHOESHINER! That’s awesome. We do get a fair amount of Alfred in this book. Now, granted, he regularly appears in the other stories we’ve read, but I don’t think he’s ever been as ‘quippy’ as he is in Shaman. I thought some of his lines were funny although a few felt misplaced, as if he had too much confidence in Bruce’s crime fighting abilities and just decided to end the phone conversation with a joke rather than something more natural like ‘Are you sure that’s smart?’ What did you make of Alfred in this book?

J: Hum, I honestly didn’t think too much of this interpretation. Not that it was bad, he has that typical wry British humor to him. I think he might be a bit more distant that the usual interpretations. Now that you do bring up Alfred, it reminds me of a scene in the comic that made me wonder something. The scene is when Bruce and Alfred start exploring the caves under the mansion and it made me think: how did Batman get the Batcave installed if he and Alfred are the only two people who know of its existence? Did they do it by themselves or did he have to make up some self-constructing robots to make the cave for him? Yes, these are the important questions I ponder late at night. What is your theory, Edgar?

E: If Mr Realism, Christopher Nolan, can’t fully explain how they got all that gadgetry down there, I very doubt I can produce a plausible explanation. Of all the things in Batman lore that HAVE been explained over the decades, I don’t think that’s one of them. Robots would make sense, assuming Wayne Industries has the ones they would need. But then, with robots so sophisticated, what did they do with them once the Batcave was complete? Seems to me those machines would make for great Robin substitutes. I have no idea, really. I’ll leave the matter in the hands of suspension of disbelief.

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